Posts Tagged ‘metaphor’

Taking the Scales of Justice Seriously as a Model for Sustainable Political Economies

February 28, 2019

We all take standards of measurement for granted as background assumptions that we never have to think about. But as technical, mundane, and boring as these standards are, they define our systems of fair dealing and just relations. The image of blind justice holding a balance scale is a universal ideal being compromised in multiple ways by chaotic forces in today’s complicated world arena.

Even so, astoundingly little effort is being invested in systematically exploring how the scales of justice might be more meaningfully and resiliently embedded within our social, economic, educational, health care, and political institutions. This well may be because the idea that people’s abilities, behaviors, and knowledge could be precisely weighed on a scale, like fruit in a grocery store, seems outrageously immoral, opening the door to treating people like commodities to be bought and sold. And even if the political will for such measures could be found, the regulatory enforcement of legally binding contracts and accounting standards appears so implausibly complicated as to make the whole matter not worth any serious consideration at all.

On the face of it, a literal application of the scales of justice to human affairs echoes ideas discredited so thoroughly and for so long that bringing them up in the here and now seems utterly ridiculous, at least, and perhaps truly dangerous, with no possible result except the crushing reduction of human beings to cogs in a soulless machine.

But what if there is some basic way in which measurement is misunderstood when it is taken to mean people will be treated like mass produced commodities for sale? What if we could measure, legally own, invest in, and profit from our literacy, health, and trustworthiness, in the same way we do with property and material things? What if precision measurement was not a tool for oppressive manipulation but a means of obtaining, sharing, and communicating valuable information? What if local contextual situations can be allowed a latitude of variation that does not negatively compromise navigable continuity?

Circumstances are conspiring to take humanity in new directions. Complex new necessities are nurturing the conception and birth of new innovations. A wealth of diverse possibilities for adaptive experimentation proposed in the past–sometimes the distant past–are finding new life in today’s technological context. And science has changed a lot in the last 100 years. In fact, the public is largely unaware that the old paradigm of mechanical reduction has been completely demolished and replaced with a new paradigm of organic emergence and complex adaptive systems. Even Newtonian mechanics and the basic number theory of arithmetic have had to be reworked. It is also true that very few experts have thought through what the demise of the mechanical root metaphor, and the birth of an organic ecosystem metaphor, means philosophically, socially, historically, and culturally.

Bottom-up manifestations of repeating patterns that can be scaled, measured, quantified, and explained open up a wide array of new opportunities for learning from shared experiences. And, just as humanity has long understood about music, we know now how to contextualize group and individual assessment and survey response patterns in ways that let everyone be what they are, uniquely improvising playful creative performances expressed using high tech instruments tuned to shared standards. A huge amount of conceptual and practical work needs to be done, but there are multiple historical precedents suggesting that betting against human ingenuity would be a losing wager.

Two new projects I’m involved in concerning sustainability impact investing and a metrology center for categorical measures begin a new exploration of the consequences of this paradigm shift for our image of the scales of justice as representing a moral imperative. These projects ask whether more complex combinations of mathematics, experiment, technology, and theory can be overtly conceived and implemented in terms of participatory and democratic social and cognitive ecosystems. If so, we may then find our way to new standards of measurement, new languages, and new forms of social organization sufficient to redefining what we take for granted as satisfying our shared sense of fair dealing and just relations.

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Modern, Postmodern, or Amodern?

February 17, 2010

A few points of clarification might be in order for those wondering what the fuss is all about in the contrast between the modern and the postmodern (and the amodern, which is really what we ought to be about).

The modern world view takes its perspective from the foundational works of the European Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. One of its characteristic features is often referred to as the Cartesian duality, or subject-object split, in which we (the subjects) enter the previously-existing objective world as blank slates who deal with reality by adapting to the facts of existence (which are God-given in the full Christian version). Many Marxists, feminists, and postmodernists see modernism as a bastion of white males in positions of political and economic superiority oblivious to the way their ideas were shaped by their times, and happy to take full advantage of their positions for their own gain.

Postmodernism takes a variety of forms and has not yet really jelled into any kind of uniform perspective; in fact, it might not ever do so, as one of its few recurrent themes has to do with the fragmentation of thinking and its local dependence on the particular power relations of different times and places. That said, a wide variety of writers trace out the way we are caught up in the play of the language games that inevitably follow from the mutual implication of subject and object. Subject and object each imply the other in the way language focuses attention selectively and filters out 99% of incoming stimuli. Concepts originate in metaphors that take their meaning from the surrounding social and historical context, and so perception and cognition are constrained by the linguistic or theoretical paradigms dominating the thoughts and behaviors of various communities. We cannot help but find ourselves drawn up into the flow of discourses that always already embody the subject-object unities represented in speaking and writing.

When we choose discourse over violence, we do so on the basis of a desire for meaning (Ricoeur, 1974), of an inescapable attraction to the beautiful (Gadamer, 1989, 1998), of a care that characterizes the human mode of being (Heidegger, 1962), of a considerateness for the human vulnerability of others and ourselves (Habermas, 1995), of an enthrallment with the fecund abundance of sexual difference (Irigaray, 1984), of the joy we experience in recognizing ourselves in each other and the universal (Hegel, 2003), of the irresistible allure of things (Harman, 2005), or of the unavoidable metaphysical necessity that propositions must take particular forms (Derrida, 1978).

All violence is ultimately the violence of the premature conclusion (Ricoeur, 1974), in which discourse is cut off by the imposition of one particularity as representative of a potentially infinite whole. This reductionism is an unjustified reduction of a universal that precludes efforts aimed at determining how well what is said might work to represent the whole transparently. Of course, all reductions of abstract ideals to particular expressions in words, numbers, or other signs are, by definition, of a limited length, and so inevitably pose the potential for being nonsensical, biased, prejudiced, and meaningless. Measures experimentally justifying reductions as meaningfully and usefully transparent are created, maintained, and reinvented via a balance of powers. In science, powers are balanced by the interrelations of theories, instruments, and data; in democracy, by the interrelations of the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government. Just as science is continuously open to the improvements that might be effected by means of new theories, instrumentation, or data, so, too, are democratic governments continuously reshaped by new court decisions, laws, and executive orders.

An essential idea here is that all thinking takes place in signs; this is not an idea that was invented or that is owned by postmodernists. C. S. Pierce developed the implications of semiotics in his version of pragmatism, and the letters exchanged by William James and Helen Keller explored the world projected by the interrelations of signs at length. The focus on signs, signification, and the play of signifiers does not make efforts at thinking futile or invalidate the search for truth. Things come into language by asserting their independent real existence, and by being appropriated in terms of relations with things already represented in the language. For instance, trees in the forest did not arrive on the scene hallmarked “white pine,” “pin oak,” etc. Rather, names for things emerge via the metaphoric process, which frames new experiences in terms of old, and which leads to a kind of conceptual speciation event that distinguishes cultural, historical, and ecological times and places from each other.

Modernists interpret the cultural relativism that emerges here as reducing all value systems to a false equality and an “anything goes” lack of standards. Unfortunately, the rejection of relativism usually entails the adoption of some form of political or religious fundamentalism in efforts aimed at restoring bellwether moral reference points. One of the primary characteristics of the current state of global crisis is our suspension in this unsustainable tension between equally dysfunctional alternatives of completely relaxed or completely rigid guides to behavior.

But the choice between fundamentalism and relativism is a false dichotomy. Science, democracy, and capitalism have succeeded as well as they have not in spite of, but because of, the social, historic, linguistic, and metaphoric factors that influence and constitute the construction of objective meaning. As Latour (1990, 1993) puts it, we have never actually been modern, so the point is not to be modern or postmodern, but amodern. We need to appropriate new, more workable conceptual reductions from the positive results produced by the deconstruction of the history of metaphysics. Though many postmodernists see deconstruction as an end in itself, and though many modernists see reductionism as a necessary exercise of power, there are other viable ways of proceeding through all three moments in the ontological method (Heidegger, 1982; Fisher, 2010b) that remain to be explored.

The amodern path informs the trajectory of my own work, from the focus on the creation of meaning in language to meaningful measurement (Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2010b), and from there to the use of measurement and metrological networks in bringing human, social, and natural capital to life as part of the completion of the capitalist and democratic projects (Fisher, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2009, 2010a). Though this project will also ultimately amount to nothing more than another failed experiment, perhaps sooner than later, it has its openness to continued questioning and ongoing dialogue in its favor.


Derrida, J. (1978). Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences. In Writing and difference (pp. 278-93). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2000). Objectivity in psychosocial measurement: What, why, how. Journal of Outcome Measurement, 4(2), 527-563 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003a, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part I. Implications for method in postmodern science. Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 753-90.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003b, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part II. Accounting for Galileo’s “fateful omission.” Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 791-828.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, October). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-54.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2005). Daredevil barnstorming to the tipping point: New aspirations for the human sciences. Journal of Applied Measurement, 6(3), 173-9 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009, November). Invariance and traceability for measures of human, social, and natural capital: Theory and application. Measurement (Elsevier), 42(9), 1278-1287.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010a). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11, in press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010b). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11(1), 38-59.

Gadamer, H.-G. (1989). Truth and method (J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans.) (Rev. ed.). New York: Crossroad (Original work published 1960).

Gadamer, H.-G. (1998). Praise of theory: Speeches and essays ( Foreword by Joel Weinsheimer, Ed.) (C. Dawson, Trans.). New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Habermas, J. (1995). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Harman, G. (2005). Guerrilla metaphysics: Phenomenology and the carpentry of things. Chicago: Open Court.

Hegel, G. W. F. (2003). Phenomenology of mind (J. B. Baillie, Trans.). New York: Dover (Original work published 1931).

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row (Original work published 1927).

Heidegger, M. (1982). The basic problems of phenomenology (J. M. Edie, Ed.) (A. Hofstadter, Trans.). Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press (Original work published 1975).

Irigaray, L. (1984). An ethics of sexual difference (C. Burke & G. C. Gill, Trans.). Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Latour, B. (1990). Postmodern? no, simply amodern: Steps towards an anthropology of science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 21(1), 145-71.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1974). Violence and language. In D. Stewart & J. Bien (Eds.), Political and social essays by Paul Ricoeur (pp. 88-101). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [].

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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